Jimmy Garoppolo and 49ers run the risk of sliding to the back of the pack

Attrition and a tough division could keep Jimmy Garoppolo and the 49ers from returning to the Super Bowl in 2020.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Brilliant coaching. Stout defense. A rugged-yet-creative running game. Adequate quarterbacking. It’s the perfect formula for almost winning a Super Bowl. And that’s precisely what Jimmy Garoppolo and the 49ers did last year.

Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch swapped out some pieces at defensive tackle (DeForest Buckner for first-round rookie Javon Kinlaw) and left tackle (Joe Staley for Washington escapee Trent Williams), upgraded the receiving corps slightly (Brandon Aiyuk, another first-round pick), and kept the rest of their NFC Championship roster mostly intact.

That means that the 49ers can go as far as Garoppolo can take them, Garoppolo can go as far as Shanahan can push him, and Shanahan will need to be as innovative as ever on offense and get another outstanding year from the star-studded, Richard Sherman-Nick Bosa-Dee Ford-led defense to give the 49ers a chance to avenge their loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV.

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Can Jimmy Garoppolo and San Francisco 49ers make it back to the Super Bowl?

Best-case scenario

A carbon copy of last year until about the 7:13 mark in the Super Bowl.

Worst-case scenario

The defense and running game backslide slightly, which exposes Garoppolo’s limits, and the 49ers’ playoff hopes are swallowed by a tough division and schedule.

Deep Dives

49ers receivers broke 43 tackles on passing plays, the highest total in the NFL. Garoppolo counts on George Kittle (16 broken tackles on passing plays, second in the league), Deebo Samuel (14, fourth), and others to turn short completions into significant gains.

Per Football Outsiders, the 49ers had the toughest defense in the NFL last year against passes to the left. Per Sports Info Solutions, they allowed just 5.70 yards per attempt (second-best figure in the league) and 42.75 yards per game (third in the league) on passes from the left numbers to the sideline. Guess which side of the field Sherman lines up on (yes, he plays right cornerback, but his right is the offense’s left. But you knew that)?

Related | What is Raheem Mostert’s value to the 49ers?

The 49ers backfield committee (Matt Breida, Tevin Coleman, Raheem Mostert, et al) faced eight or more defenders in the box on a league-high 214 carries last season, averaging just 3.6 yards per rush in these situations. The 49ers ran pretty efficiently into the teeth of stacked defenses when fourth-quarter kill-the-clock plunges are accounted for, but you better believe that Shanahan wants to open things up a little bit.

Fantasy Spin

Mostert should get more touches as the backfield committee chairman with Breida gone, but Coleman had 33 postseason carries, and both Jeff Wilson and (somehow) Jerick McKinnon are still on the roster. Coleman had nine carries inside the five-yard line, Mostert and Wilson six each, so the potential for touchdown leeching is high. Mostert’s ADP hovers in the early sixth round, right where RB2s fade into RB3s. He fits best in a 10-12 team league as an RB3.

Where can we expect the 49ers to finish this season?

The 2019 49ers were so similar to the 2018 Rams — great defense, clever young coach, newfangled-but-balanced offense, solid-but-unspectacular young quarterback, heartbreaking Super Bowl — that their story almost feels plagiarized. The 49ers face many of the same potential pitfalls as they try to return to the Super Bowl as the Rams did last year and could tumble toward .500 with only a slight dropoff on offense or defense.

Related | San Francisco 49ers 2020 Win Total: Over or under?

But the 49ers have done a better job avoiding the Cap Reaper than the Rams so far, and despite Sean McVay’s boy-genius billing, Shanahan appears to be the better coach.

A step back from last year is almost inevitable in the unforgiving NFC West, but Shanahan and Lynch have done enough to ensure that it should be just a small step. The 49ers will remain in the mix as NFC contenders.

San Francisco 49ers 2020 Prediction

11-5, first place in the NFC West.

NFL Recap from Mike Tanier
Every Sunday and Monday, Mike Tanier gives his NFL Recap of the biggest stories around the NFL. Click here for the rest of his takes on NFL Week 1.